With As­sad's fate se­cure, Rus­sia sets its sights on Isis fight­ers in Syria

The Guardian Australia - - World News - Shaun Walker in Okeir­bat

The head of the Rus­sian army in Syria has said the de­feat of Is­lamic State in the coun­try is im­mi­nent dur­ing a visit to a strate­gi­cally lo­cated town re­cently re­cap­tured from Isis by forces loyal to Bashar alAs­sad.

“All the con­di­tions are in place for the fi­nal stage of de­feat­ing Isis in Syria,” said Lt Gen Alexan­der Lapin, stand­ing amid heavy se­cu­rity out­side the build­ing of a former Isis sharia court, adorned with the ex­trem­ist group’s black-and-white logo. “I can prom­ise you that no Isis ter­ror­ist will ever set foot in this town again.”

Okeir­bat was re­gained by forces loyal to the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment on 2 Septem­ber af­ter a three­month as­sault amid in­ten­sive Rus­sian airstrikes. Re­cap­tur­ing the town en­abled gov­ern­ment-backed forces to push for­ward to­wards break­ing the long-stand­ing siege on Deir ez­Zor, in the east of the coun­try.

Rus­sia en­tered the con­flict on the side of As­sad’s gov­ern­ment in Septem­ber 2015 at a time when the regime looked close to fall­ing. Al­though Moscow’s stated goal has al­ways been to de­feat Isis, dur­ing the first year of en­gage­ment the ma­jor­ity of Rus­sian airstrikes tar­geted other op­po­si­tion groups, in­clud­ing those sup­ported by west­ern coun­tries.

Rus­sia’s long-stand­ing pol­icy in the Mid­dle East has been that re­tain­ing the sta­tus quo, how­ever un­pleas­ant the regime may be, is al­ways bet­ter than revo­lu­tion, and the Rus­sian in­ter­ven­tion ap­peared de­signed to shore up the As­sad regime at any cost.

With As­sad now look­ing more se­cure, Rus­sia has in­deed be­gun bat­tling Isis. On Thurs­day, Moscow launched seven cruise mis­siles at Isis tar­gets south-east of Deir ez-Zor, and said the mil­i­tants would soon be pushed to the other side of the Euphrates river.

The Rus­sians took a group of jour­nal­ists to Okeir­bat as the fi­nal leg of a four-day tour for press de­signed to show­case Moscow’s con­tri­bu­tion to the war and the sub­se­quent peace­keep­ing op­er­a­tion. The trip has shown just how in­volved Rus­sia is on the ground in Syria, with the coun­try’s mil­i­tary po­lice in­volved in se­cur­ing a num­ber of “de-es­ca­la­tion zones” where cease­fires be­tween gov­ern­ment forces and mod­er­ate op­po­si­tion groups are in place.

On Fri­day, jour­nal­ists were flown from the main Rus­sian air­base near Latakia on the Mediter­ranean coast to an air­field east of Aleppo, and then taken in a con­voy of ar­moured trucks on a five-hour jour­ney along des­o­late roads to Okeir­bat, past the war-de­stroyed shells of aban­doned vil­lages.

The con­voy was ac­com­pa­nied by black-clad men from As­sad’s feared se­cret po­lice, the Mukhabarat, and pickup trucks mounted with ri­fles. On ar­rival, the town was pa­trolled by what ap­peared to be Rus­sian spe­cial forces sol­diers armed with high-end equip­ment but no in­signia.

The com­pli­cated tan­gle of forces op­er­at­ing on the ground was ev­i­dent at a dusty for­ward op­er­at­ing base out­side Okeir­bat, where the con­voy stopped briefly, which ap­peared to be manned at least partly by ir­reg­u­lar Rus­sians who did not want to speak to the me­dia. The Rus­sians have por­trayed the lat­est ad­vance as en­tirely run by Syr­ian army units op­er­at­ing with Rus­sian air cover, but in re­al­ity most of the fight­ing in Syria over the past few years has been led by Ira­nian-backed mili­tias, with the Syr­ian army in dis­ar­ray.

Fight­ing in the area was still on­go­ing, with an in­com­ing mor­tar shell land­ing close to the Rus­sian con­voy as it drove to­wards Okeir­bat. In the town it­self, dull thuds of ar­tillery could be heard at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals. Isis po­si­tions were about 10 miles away from the town, ac­cord­ing to the Rus­sians.

There was an ex­ten­sive tun­nel net­work un­der­neath the town that the Isis mil­i­tants had dug over the past two years, mak­ing the cap­ture of Okeir­bat es­pe­cially dif­fi­cult. The town was also home to an Isis tank work­shop. Lapin said the Rus­sians had lo­cated the fac­tory by us­ing drones to fol­low tank tracks, and had car­ried out airstrikes on the tar­get on 29 Au­gust.

The tank work­shop had three dif­fer­ent sec­tions: one for the re­pair of cap­tured tanks, one to re­in­force them with makeshift ar­mour and one to turn tanks into pow­er­ful sui­cide ve­hi­cles. There were still the re­mains of a num­ber of tanks in the work­shop, in­clud­ing one with the tur­ret re­moved. The work­shop re­moved the tur­rets of about onethird of the tanks it cap­tured from the Syr­ian army with ex­plo­sives, and would then use them on sui­cide mis­sions, said Lapin. When fit­ted this way, the tanks had a kill ra­dius of 300 me­tres.

Lapin said that dur­ing the re­cent Syr­ian and Rus­sian op­er­a­tion against Isis, 1,209 fight­ers had been killed and 49 tanks and 159 pickup trucks mounted with ri­fles had been de­stroyed. The Rus­sians have typ­i­cally ei­ther avoided talk­ing about civil­ian ca­su­al­ties or claimed there have been none, de­spite mon­i­tor­ing groups fre­quently re­port­ing ca­su­al­ties, par­tic­u­larly from airstrikes.

Okeir­bat had a pop­u­la­tion of 10,000 prior to the out­break of Syria’s civil war, which had fallen to 2,500 un­der Isis, said Lapin. The Rus­sians claimed that all the civil­ians had fled be­fore the fi­nal as­sault on the town, but it was un­clear how this had hap­pened, or whether there were in fact civil­ian ca­su­al­ties dur­ing the as­sault. Ob­server groups have re­ported nu­mer­ous civil­ian ca­su­al­ties dur­ing the cur­rent wave of fight­ing.

Lapin said Isis and other Is­lamic ex­trem­ist groups now con­trol about 15% of Syria, with Isis in re­treat and head­ing for a fi­nal show­down in the Euphrates val­ley. A sep­a­rate of­fen­sive by op­po­si­tion fight­ers backed by the US-led coali­tion is con­tin­u­ing in the eastern Deir ez-Zor prov­ince.

The Bri­tish-based Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights es­ti­mates that the As­sad gov­ern­ment cur­rently con­trols 48% of Syr­ian ter­ri­tory, in­di­cat­ing that even af­ter the fi­nal de­feat of Isis, the coun­try’s long and dev­as­tat­ing con­flict will be far from over.

A Rus­sian sol­dier stands in front of a de­stroyed tank fac­tory op­er­ated by Isis mil­i­tants. Pho­to­graph: Nataliya Vasi­lyeva/AP

A Syr­ian gov­ern­ment sol­dier stands guard out­side what was a shariah court run by Isis in Okeir­bat. Pho­to­graph: Nataliya Vasi­lyeva/AP

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